Street Seens: New Again at 116; Chronicle of a Perennial Beauty

When the Grey Lady welcomed the newlyweds Dr. Lewis Woodruffs in 1902 she did so on one condition. In a house as singular as this one built by the Doctor’s father, Gregory, she must have reminded them, “There are standards to be met and upheld.”  Theirs would have to be an alliance of mutual respect, and so it was for the 58 years she and that “first family” spent together.

It was that mutual unspoken alliance that was taken up in 1960 when the Fay family, the second of the only two families to call her home for five-plus decades, came and stayed until today. They were pledged to live within her walls with all the wonder and the wit; the growth and the gratitude she deserves.  And that is the heritage that will pass with the deed.*  The Grey Lady is new again in the 21stcentury, a proud beauty partnering with a new generation as she takes her stand on the most enduring of woods, the finest of metals, the most sophisticated of architectural skills. Their message is captured in the poet’s phrase “Beauty ever-ancient, ever-new.” 

One of the Lady’s many,distinctive architectural features, her iconic pocket doors appear in three episodes of her long history.  Together, they illustrate the amazing variety of lives lived with her walls. 

Episode 1 arose as the creative solution for the family of a dedicated healer of his patients, equally committed to the needs of his own family. Dr. Woodruff put both sets of the Grey Lady’s distinctive full-length pocket doors of finely crafted hardwood to work to facilitate his desire to maintain privacy for both his patients and his family. When closed, they defined and provided separate enclaves where each could come and go in peaceful privacy during his consulting hours. 

Episode 2 occurred well into the Fay era and deserves mention for setting a singular tone of industrial innovation and global bridge building.  As pioneers in the design, patenting, and manufacturing of baking equipment, CMC-America has been led since 1881 by three generations of Fay family innovators. Their offices and factory space are found at the bottom of the Grey Lady’s hilltop domain.

She watched from afar as CMC-America became recognized for establishing its baking equipment industry’s modern sanitary standards; for consistently inventing and winning patents for new techniques and technologies.  

And then, in the early days of a new era of trade with China, CMC America became the first company to bring bai mian bao (sliceable white) pan bread across the globe.  To celebrate, the Grey Lady rolled open her pocket doors to seat the Chinese guests and mark another day in which she played a role in opening a new era of creativity.  Meanwhile, on her southeastern front, the Lady, with her typical Victorian decorum, supported two flags at just the points protocol requires for the visitor’s flag be flown just a bit below the Stars and Stripes.

Episode Three featuring the pocket doors began early in the Fay era and has yet to end. You’ve already heard two stories involving the iconic pocket doors; but I suspect the third, annual event will always be of unique importance to the children of the Fay family.  Each Christmas morning, “Santa Fay,” (No, not the Railroad) with maximum drama, addressed his audience gathered on the three levels of the main staircase, waiting to guess what might have appeared behind the distinctive pocket door that leads to the living room. Had Santa come with gifts when all were asleep?  Was the Great Tree newly surrounded with gifts? The suspense was heightened: “I’ll look once more to see whether he came……” And then, finally, one of the signature pocket doors was drawn to its limits, revealing that Santa had indeed visited and left gifts for all around the Christmas tree … atop the Victorian settee before which Dr. Woodruff knelt to propose to the bride in 1902.. and near the fireplace that was the center of so much warmth and magic.

With due respect for the glories of her rare sets of rolling doors, it would be a mistake to let them cast any shadow on the role of “The Fireplace.” Some have been heard to say that for the Fays, the Grey Lady’s Living Room Fireplace has a singular status, as a sort of quasi “Eighth Sacrament” of enduring memories and fellowship.  Inside her solidly-built walls, the families for whom she was a sacred trust have shared poetry read at her Fireside.

It was there that the Fays would gather on Christmas Eve to read Saint Luke’s account of the birth of the Christ Child, whose figure was then carried in procession to the Creche that lay in the dining room beyond the second set of pocket doors.

And each year, less than a week later, another mood prevailed.  Because in the Fay era, along with classic poetry, the antics of adults and children with comedic insight in their DNA invented a new fireside tradition.  The inexplicable “Poloznik” is an annually recruited Eastern European ritual called up to partner with the Celtic spirit of myth on New Year’s Eve.  Each participant in the ritual would cast a penny into the fire. The number of sparks released by the poker’s stroke told how abundant the new year’s fortunes would be.  The fire’s response to the drops of wine splashed on the remainder of last year’s Yule Log signaled the wishes for good spirits and together signaled the blessings that lay ahead.  

In every season, there was also the trombone parade that became a staple of birthday celebrations (though no known virtuoso of the instrument has ever, to this day, been found on the family tree.)

Trees and gardens became major players in the Grey Lady’s life in the Fay era. Two of the five siblings, Edward and Christopher were born into her walls.  But to welcome the three others who were able to walk into 953 that day in 1960, two trees flanking the walk leading to her distinctive red door with its iron tracery were named Jimmy and Patrick for the two oldest sons.  The white roses planted in the west garden were symbolic of Meagen, the four boy’s only sister.  And of course, as perennial symbol of the love story of their parents.  

And as a testament to the newness she has always championed, the Grey Lady waits to welcome the next generation. Her spirit will be there to cheer them on as they carry forth a heritage of graciousness, grace and love. And as she does so, there is an echo of the last Great Lady to reign at 953, intoning the song from Guys and Dolls, which she made a tradition at countless weddings ….  “More I cannot wish you…..than to wish you’ll find your love, your own true love, today.”  

The Author’s Note:  I met this elegant Grey Lady who stands on her hilltop in Joliet, IL. when she and I were both younger.  I discovered her as recognized symbol of Joliet’s proud Victorian architecture, even more precious because she was then the home of my dear Sister Peggy and her Beloved “James the Great” and their growing family.  The recent death of my father and my mother Sara’s subsequent decision to pass the home of my childhood to a new family, made the Grey Lady my home away from home for glorious decades.  And I never stopped learning from her. 

*The author’s family home is now for sale and looking for the next family to appreciate the Grey Lady’s history and beauty. More information can be found here.

All photos courtesy of Kelly Birk, Real People Realty.

About Annette Sara Cunningham (119 Articles)
Annette Sara Cunningham comes to Street Seens and Woman Around Town as a “villager” who migrated from Manhattan, Illinois to Manhattan 10065. She is currently the recovering ringmaster of a deliberately small three-ring enterprise privileged to partner with world-class brands to make some history as strategist and creative marketer. The “history” included the branding, positioning and stories of Swiss Army’s launch of watches; Waterford Crystal’s Millennium Collection and its Times Square Ball; the Orbis flying eye hospital’s global assault on preventable blindness; the green daring that in a matter of months, turned a Taiwan start up’s handheld wind and sun powered generator into a brand standing tall among the pioneers of green sustainability; travel to Finland’s Kings’ Road and Santa’s hometown near the Arctic Circle; the tourism and trade of Northern Ireland; and the elegant exports of France. She dreamed at age 12 of being a writer. But that dream was put on hold, while she became: successively, teacher of undergraduate philosophy, re-brander of Ireland from a seat at the table of the Irish Government’s Export Board; then entrepreneur, as founder and President of ASC International, Ltd. and author of Aunts: a Celebration of Those Special Women in our Lives (soon to be reborn as Aunts; the Best Supporting Actresses.) Now it’s time to tell the 12-year old that dreams sometimes come true.